Mazepa at the Mariinsky Review

A scene from the production. Photo from  

It is hard to understand why Mazepa is one of the Russian classics that never made it to world acclaim. Tchaikovsky’s soft and skillful orchestration builds up a compelling dimension to Pushkin’s drama, featuring elegant natural-sounding singing lines and beautiful melody. Mazepa is a striking tale about love and madness; friendship and honor—set in Peter the Great’s early 18th century. The current 1950-premiered production matches the libretto beautifully. There are several layers of 2-dimensional sets reproducing 18th century Russia: a beautiful courtyard filled with trees, overlooking a river in the background for act 1, scene 1; a grand hall in Kochubei’s house for scene 2 and an urban area with towering precarious buildings during the execution scene. This realistic visual support—backed up by amazing historical costumes—lends support to the building of the drama. PZ would have liked to see some more introspection sometimes; apparently, one of the problems of the old-fashioned productions is the lack of update in choreography. How can Maria’s mother just weep on the floor when her daughter collapses to the floor as she sees Kochubei’s head rolling from the executioner’s sword? In the final scene, Orlik urges Mazepa to hurry and “leave that wretch”, but both basically stand still for some half a minute. One would have expected to see more movement in some scenes.

One of the reasons that make Mazepa such an interesting opera is Mazepa himself—and Maria’s strange love for him as well. When he asks Kochubei to marry his own goddaughter Maria, he argues that his old heart knows how to love best and is not as flick than a young man’s. But why Maria, if the price is breaking his long-term friendship with Kochubei? Nicolai Putilin presented Mazepa just as one would expect; he does in fact have a white beard as the libretto requires and sings just as though he was Mazepa. Putilin’s commanding, piercing voice has lost its agility but still remains a powerful and penetrating presence—just like his character is supposed to be. Tatiana Pavlovskaya’s Maria was moving; her last scene was heartbreaking. One cannot really blame Maria for choosing her love, whether motivated by a lucid state of mind or otherwise. After being fatally wounded by his fleeing rival Mazepa, Andrei dies just beside his beloved Tatiana, who is in such delirium she is not able to recognize him. Viktor Lutsyuk gave a passionate account of Andrei’s feelings, with a bright and vibrating voice. Kochubei was convincingly portrayed by Mikhail Kit. Kochubei’s fellow-condemned friend Iskra has only a few lines, but those were just enough to get PZ’s attention. Next time, look for Leonid Zakhozhaev’s name for main wagnerian roles. Grigory Kasarev’s brief bass interventions as Orlik were a surprise, resembling a flashback from a 1920s or 30s Kirov recording.

Mariinsky’s orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s music beautifully under Pavel Smelkov. The battle entr’acte felt a little too loud and wasn’t an overall electrifying experience; nevertheless, Smelkov respects singers’ capabilities and provides an excellent mould for the drama, which frequently occurs in a natural speaking rhythm. (It is curious because Russians actually speak really fast in real life.) Mazepa at the old Mariinsky was an amazing experience—definitely a must-see for any opera lover who drops by in St Petersburg and finds it on the playbill.


Il Trovatore at the Mariinsky 2 Review

After a one month break, the Mariinsky has finally kicked off its 232nd season. Swan Lake started at 7pm last Friday but guess what—Trovatore was just around the corner at the Mariinsky 2 at 7.30! The season opener Trovatore was a much expected event mainly due to well-known Russian conductor Valery Gergiev on the pit. The Mariinsky 2 is a wonderful modern theatre with amazing acoustics and studio-like reverberation—in fact, the best PZ has ever experienced in an opera house—and Gergiev's brilliant conducting put this Trovatore together with remarkable care for the singers. The production is not luxurious even though it received an ovation when the curtain went up for the last scene of act 2. However, an almost empty and dark stage fuels dramatic intensity during most scenes of the opera. In the 2nd scene of act 3, there are only some steps and the lovers’ bed with a red dossal—maybe another sign of Leonora and Manrico’s ill-fated love. When Ruiz interrupts the love duet to warn Manrico that Azucena has been captured by the count, Gergiev’s orchestra bursts into the show-stopper aria “Di quella pira”, and a pyre is actually projected at the back of the stage.

This effect was also used in the previous scene in Di Luna’s camp, which may have made it look a little dull during the aria. Even though Gergiev was doing his best to support tenor Hovhannes Ayvazyan’s Manrico, the latter’s rendition was not very stimulating and that became too apparent during “Ah sì, ben mio.” Where was the will of avenging his grandmother in the en-poignant duet with Azucena; where was his fierceness as he rushed either to save his mother or die trying? Nevertheless, Ayvazyan managed to pull out the high Cs and had a decent performance in the last act.  One of the reasons why this downside became evident was because Di Luna, Manrico’s rival, was played by Alexei Markov, a strong Russian-school baritone. Markov’s voice is powerful and his posture is commanding, even though his upper register can get shaky sometimes. This is not an evil Di Luna—just a man who is in love and cannot help despising the troubadour.  In act 4, in the dungeons, he observes the lovers for a while before he intervenes and sends Manrico off for execution. He just couldn’t help it.

Ekaterina Semenchuk’s Azucena was also very good, even though without a voice as strong as Markov’s. Semenchuk delivered a good “Stride la vampa!” with an amazing visual impact. Besides its amazing acoustics, the Mariinsky 2 also boasts some state of the art stage technology, which allows the stage’s floor to go up several meters. This technology was used to produce a setting for the gypsy camp, thus placing the anvil chorus in a basement-looking setting. Azucena told her story from the side of a fire, going back and forth alternating between light and shadow, building up an additional effect of suspense. Except for the fact that this “basement” features industrial revolution style structures and the costumes were traditional middle-ages, the only bothering thing about this production is that the anvil chorus uses no anvils. There are synchronized anvils onstage but the music doesn’t use anvils, which is kind of frustrating in P.Z.’s opinion.

A way of putting things straight about this Trovatore is saying that the first best thing was Gergiev’s magical conducting; the second best was Tatiana Serjan’s Leonora. This was a deeply emotional Leonora, fully introspective in “D’amor sull’ali rosee”, to which she added some cadenze at the end. Serjan’s work also deserves credit for respecting her colleague Hovhannes Ayvazyan (Manrico); acknowledging she had different vocal capabilities, she was clearly worried about not drowning the tenor, thus smoothing the evening’s performances.  She may have got out of pitch a couple of times, but no one really cares too much when the rest of the singing is so beautiful and intelligent. Her last scene in the dungeons was moving and also benefited from some interesting insights by the staging. When Azucena wakes up, she asks the count where Manrico is; he replies he is now dead. But in this production, he was actually still climbing the stairs for the execution chamber. De Luna doesn’t rush upstairs, which may suggest—again—that he just couldn’t forgive him. This was the real gypsy’s revenge: brother killing brother and knowing he was doing it.


Maestro Gergiev's curtain call.

Blog Agenda

Blog Agenda  (Last updated in April, 2015)
I have decided to make this blog a forum for travelers—especially opera tourists. Therefore, this is a blog about Everything You Need To Know About Going To The Mariinsky. You may browse for what you need by clicking the blue links below or the links inside of the texts, which attempt to correlate the main topics. This is how I would logically present it:
  • Best & Worst of Fall 2014: Singers, Conductors and Stagings
  • Any ideas for other posts? Share them with me!
Readers are welcome to ask for advice in any of the Comments section. I also encourage you to share your experiences there. Let the opera begin!

About the author (Last pdated in April, 2015)
Plácido Zacarias is crazy about opera and has been blogging about it for the last 5 years. He stayed in St Petersburg for half a year for professional reasons and got to see some 30 performances at the Mariinsky. He is now back to Lisbon--his hometown--and will be blogging about his experiences at the Mariinsky in this blog.

Motivation Letter
Dear Readers,                                                                                          August 18, 2014
Greetings from Saint Petersburg, Russia! Welcome to Plácido Zacarias’ new blog Inside the Mariinsky: Nights at the Opera in St Petersburg. Over the next months, PZ will be attending opera performances at the Mariinsky theatres as often as possible. Russian opera is the kind of thing every opera-goer loves—who doesn’t feel compassionate about little Tatyana from Tchaikovsky’s Onegin and who doesn’t occasionally enjoy listening to that Russian-school bass in a Verdi opera?
      PZ will get to experience all this in person and will be able to give international readers an account of what going to the Mariinsky in person feels like. St Petersburg offers a wide variety of repertoire every season, ranging from the Russian classics to standard repertoire Italian operas—and a lot more! In fact, Saint Petersburg’s opera venues are almost as active as the New York's Metropolitan Opera itself. However, as one goes through the playbill around here, there are little world-renowned opera artists (except for the well-known exception of conductor Valery Gergiev); moreover, the pictures of some productions do look dreary at first sight. Over the next months, PZ will do his best to keep Inside the Mariinsky updated and assess St Petersburg’s standards.
      If you’re more into ballet, stay in tune—there may be something coming up for you as well. Hopefully, this blog will get to help some readers make up their minds about their next opera-tourism destination and eventually help them plan their Mariinsky experience. Readers and Mariinskyers are welcome to express their views in the Comments sections. If only this blog could get opera lovers to get together and discuss their views on Russian opera productions, this blog will be serving its purpose. Help us create a community by sharing this blog with your fellow opera lovers.
Plácido Zacarias